U.N. Inspectors Return to Iraqi Airfield

K By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

kHAN BANI SAAD, Iraq – In the late 1980s, according to U.N. arms experts, military researchers at this sleepy airfield north of Baghdad tested the Zubaidy device, a helicopter-mounted contraption that could disperse deadly bacteriological agents from the air.

U.N. inspectors who scoured Iraq in the 1990s for weapons of mass destruction believe a dozen Zubaidy devices were built. But unlike thousands of other pieces of equipment affiliated with Iraq’s programs to develop banned arms, the spraying units never were confirmed to have been destroyed. The inspectors wrote in their last report that “the final, tested devices were unaccounted for.”

Sunday, a new contingent of U.N. inspectors returned to the airfield, presumably to search for information about the devices and to examine whether Iraq has been conducting biological or chemical weapons research. They spent almost five hours at the site, walking inside three large camouflage-painted hangars and looking at a collection of rusty Soviet-made helicopters, chemical tanks and spraying nozzles scattered on the tarmac. The airfield’s director said the inspectors also took samples from inside the tanks and downloaded files from computers in his office.

As the inspectors searched the airfield, Iraqi officials said, Western warplanes bombed an oil company office building in the southern port city of Basra, killing four people and wounding 27 others. An Iraqi military spokesman said two rockets hit the offices of the Southern Oil Co. on Sunday morning. The company supervises the country’s oil exports under a U.N. program that allows Iraq to sell oil for food and humanitarian supplies.

U.S. officials confirmed an attack occurred, but they said U.S. and British planes, which police “no-fly” zones in southern and northern Iraq, hit air-defense facilities near Basra in response to Iraqi antiaircraft artillery fire.

Iraqi officials did not say who fired first. An Iraqi military spokesman said coalition planes staged 62 “armed sorties” over southern Iraq Sunday morning. “Iraqi missile batteries and ground defenses confronted the warplanes, forcing them to flee to their bases in Kuwait,” the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Iraqi News Agency.

U.S. officials have accused Iraq of placing air-defense installations and radar equipment close to civilian installations.

The no-fly zones were established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to protect a Kurdish enclave in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from attack by President Saddam Hussein’s military. U.S. officials have said American and British aircraft have been targeted more frequently by Iraqi antiaircraft gunners in recent months.

At the Khan Bani Saad airfield, the director, Montadhar Radeef Mohammed, who said he has been at the post since 1998, said he knew nothing about the Zubaidy devices or other biological weapons testing at the site.

He said the tanks, nozzles and helicopters are used to spray pesticides on crops.

“We have only civilian functions,” he said. “These systems are for plants.”

He said the inspectors found no prohibited material during their search. The inspectors, who have completed four days of searches, did not comment about the visit here. They have said they will reveal their conclusions only to their superiors in New York and Vienna, who in turn must report to the U.N. Security Council.

The airfield, surrounded by a sea of yellow corn scattered by local farmers making cattle feed, is run by the Ministry of Agriculture. Mohammed said no pesticides or other chemicals are kept on the site. Instead, he said, the helicopters fly to farms, where the side-mounted tanks are filled before pilots commence spraying operations.

The facility has about 25 aging Soviet Mi-2 helicopters, but only about nine work, he said. The rest need spare parts whose import has been blocked by a U.N. committee enforcing economic sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The import of aviation parts has typically been restricted because of concerns they could be used for military purposes.

After the inspectors left, Iraqi officials allowed journalists to enter the facility and walk across the airfield. Several dozen torpedo-shaped tanks and spraying nozzles, which had U.N. identification tags affixed by earlier groups of inspectors, were lined up on the tarmac.

The inspectors returned to Iraq last month, after the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution threatening “serious consequences” for Iraq if it did not allow international arms experts access to any person or place in Iraq without having to seek permission or provide advance notice.

The previous groups of U.N. inspectors, who first arrived in Iraq in 1991, destroyed tons of chemical and biological weapons and have been credited with dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons program. But the monitoring ended in 1998 as disputes arose over the inspectors’ access to sites and Iraqi objections that the United States used some inspectors as spies.

The inspectors have not told the Iraqi government in advance which sites they plan to search, but they have begun their inspections at places that already were scoured by U.N. experts in the 1990s. That strategy is expected to continue at least until Dec. 8, when an additional 35 inspectors are scheduled to augment the 17 already on the ground.